by Steven Woodruff
Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg is concluding their tour of North America with performances of “Up and Down” (Segerstrom Center for the Arts last week) and “Rodin” in three performances this week at the Los Angeles Music Center. “Up and Down” is an American jazz age story. It was originally based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel “Tender is the Night”. Of the two, “Rodin” (2011) makes a better impression both for its music (a more or less unified assemblage of French music by Ravel, Satie, and others roughly contemporaneous with the life of the sculptor himself) but also for a more clearly articulated storyline. “Up and Down” draws on excerpted music from wildly disparate sources such as Gershwin, Alban Berg, and Schubert. “Rodin” still looks like dance. “Up and Down”, though charged with the same outsized attention to theatrically and staging, felt overwhelmed by Mr. Eifman’s brand of expressionistic movement and mime. The dancing seemed aimed at creating novel effects rather than an honest communication of intimate details.
Mr. Eifman calls himself a choreographer of “psychological ballets”. He has mined the dark stories of Russian classic literature for many of his productions. The central story line of “Rodin” focuses on the oppressive and turbulent relationship between the sculptor Rodin, and Camille Claudel, Rodin’s real life muse, whose broken life and smothered artistic identity eventually fetches up in a sanatorium. While the onstage story begins and ends there, the central narrative remains devoted to the obsessions of both artists as well as the mutual affection shared by Rodin and Rose Beuret, a long suffering confidant and “other woman”.
Mr. Eifman weaves a complex narrative of reality and remembrance that takes place in a blended past and present, flashing forward and backward at will. The storytelling can at times be blurred, but it bolsters a vision of Rodin as an artist and narcissistic brute. Act I plays more coherently than Act II, in which you sense the choreographer is tying up loose ends of his story. We are first introduced to Rodin’s long time caretaker and other woman Rose Beuret early in Act I, we don’t find out the details of how they met until midway through Act II. That scene, a country harvest with a folk dance theme, is full of dance and high spirits. The tangential cabaret scene with its frenetic and fabulous Can-Can (it references a similar scene in Massine’s ballet “Gaité Parisienne”) while evocative of the era felt gratuitously included. Like operatic diversions, both come across as detours.
The ballet is at its best with the focused scenes of its principals Oleg Gabyshev, Lyubov Andreyeva and Yulia Manjeles. Mr. Eifman has invented his own easily recognizable brand of theater dance. The acting and gestural language reach well beyond mere mime or declamatory pretense, the dancing and partnering take place in a realm of modern, emotionally complex movement that is never simply derivative. The plasticity of the movement itself plays off the gestural language of Rodin and Claudel as they mold their sculptures or shape actual human bodies into sculptural forms. At times, Ms Manjeles as Rose, channels something of the Graham ethos with her tormented gestures and stark expressionism. Costumed in a floor-length dress, she even looks the part. Mr. Gabyshev turned in a virtuoso performance full of athleticism and pathos. As Rodin he is on stage for most of both acts and was as affecting dancing alone as he was partnering Manjeles and Andreyeva. Andreyeva as Camille framed that character’s powerful yet breakable spirit with a poignant performance that believably led you from innocence to despair.
Intense theatricality characterizes all of Eifman’s ballets. With brilliant sets, production designs, and a crew of invested dancers, he has exclusively devoted his work to narrative ballets, creating a contemporary vision for big time Russian ballet.
(The reviewed performance took place at the Los Angeles Music Center on June 12, 2015. The performance was accompanied by recorded music. “Up and Down” premiered in January 2015. This story includes sections from a 2013 review of “Rodin” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.)